Two weeks ago, on the closing night of the National Horse Show in New York's Madison Square Garden, the $2,500 open jumper championship ended in a tie for the first time in 79 years. The two horses and riders who were called back for a jump-off—the horse show equivalent of baseball's extra inning and hockey's sudden death—were Ben O'Meara on Jacks or Better and Kathy Kusner on Unusual. Ben O'Meara is considered one of the brightest young professionals on horseback. Kathy Kusner is a 22-year-old amateur.
As Jacks or Better and Unusual clomped back and forth over the dirt path leading to the ring on the main floor of the Garden awaiting the jump-off, four grooms gathered in a tack tent in the basement. Huddling over an olive blanket with the Boy Scout seal ("Be Prepared") in its center, each of the grooms threw down a $5 bill and a folded slip of paper. One groom picked up the $20 and began reading the pool slips. Suddenly he stopped and declared, "We ain't got no action. Everybody has picked her, and everybody says she goes clean."
When the jump-off was concluded, Kathy Kusner had indeed gone clean, sailing over each of the 12 jumps, ranging in height from 4 feet to 6 feet, faultlessly. She took her blue ribbon and returned to the Garden basement, which, during the National, serves as a combination paddock, corral, tack room and hotel. Before accepting congratulations she jumped onto an equipment trunk and pinned the ribbon to the border of a canvas curtain that was already lined with 13 other ribbons. She stepped back, looked at them and a bright smile crossed her face.
Kathy Kusner is one of three young horsewomen whose smiles—and exceptional talents—have brightened the horse show circuit this fall. Along with 18-year-old Mary Mairs (it rhymes with stars and not with stairs) and a 20-year-old Canadian girl, Gail Ross, she has captured the attention of horse show patrons, as well as some of the headlines, in Harrisburg, Washington, New York and, just last week, in Toronto.
By the time the equestrian events begin at the 1964 Olympics, there is a good chance that either Miss Mairs or Miss Kusner will be representing the U.S. and a certainty that Miss Ross will be jumping against her for Canada.
In a sport which so often appeals to club members, social pretenders, white-on-whiters and backbiters, Kathy Kusner is the most discussed of all the riders. In Washington, while still suffering from bruises incurred in a fall, she won a double jump-off to take the President's Cup.
It is this sort of performance that is doing much to change the traditional attitude of the horse show hierarchy. Through the years horse shows seem to have played down the importance of the riders, an attitude that is hardly shared by the general public. At the majority of shows, for instance, the programs do not even list the riders' names.
"One of the things which the horse show has long needed to do," says 38-year-old Jim Thomas, the youngest president the National has ever had, "is get interest away from the socialites who sit in the box seats and get the people to take an interest in the competition in the ring." With these three girls, Thomas—and other horse show officials as well—now have something tangible and attractive to sell. "It's high time," Thomas says, "that we began to make this a more popular spectator sport."
Kathy Kusner is a short, attractive brunette from Arlington, Va. There are a few who say she is a true mechanic—as perfect on a jumper as a rider can be—but there are many who say she is as warm, personally, as a machine. One critic has described her as "a circle with the rims removed," but others feel she is as full of talent as any girl rider they have ever seen.
She holds the women's record for a high jump, 7 feet 3 inches, which she set when she was 18, just before graduating from Washington-Lee High School. "I want to ride forever," she has said. Currently Kathy is an alternate on the United States Equestrian Team, and her ambition is to ride for her country in Tokyo. Her ability can easily take her there, but her coolness may well make her less than welcome on a team whose members must live close together for many weeks and, ultimately, depend on each other to pile up a winning score. Many people who have met Kathy find that she exudes an aloofness that surpasses mere rudeness. Once, after promising days in advance to appear on a television show, Free and Easy, on Toronto's CFTO-TV, Kathy decided at the last minute not to go on at all, leaving the show short one guest and with a lot of empty air time to fill.
She is still young, however, and has plenty of opportunity to take herself in hand as skillfully as she controls her mounts. Since August, Kathy Kusner has risen to countless fences with Unusual and, by her own admission, "knocked down only four rails." How much of this success belongs to Kathy and how much to the horse? Mrs. Frances Rowe, who is agent for Unusual's owner, C. S. Florman, has something to say about that: "He was bred by Mrs. Liz [Whitney] Tippett and her Llangollen Farm in Upperville, Va. His sire is Endeavour II [also the sire of the outstanding Thoroughbred, Prove It], and his dam is Winter Rose, the dam of the superb jumper Riviera Wonder, who four times won the New York national championship. We started Unusual at the Devon Horse Show in May, but he didn't finish anywhere. Once Kathy started riding him he began to win. First on the Virginia circuit...Then he won the green jumper title at the Penn National Horse Show. In my mind I feel that, without Kathy Kusner, Unusual is just another nickel horse."
The girl that Kathy Kusner must beat out to win a spot on the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team is tall (5 feet 8 inches) Mary Mains, the youngest rider ever to represent the U.S. in international competition. Last week in Toronto, she lost a jump-off to England's David Barker, but the three points which she picked up pushed the U.S. into a two-point lead, a lead which it never relinquished.
Mary Mairs has a fluid style and appears not to be moving on a horse at all. When the USET toured Europe last summer she impressed Europeans as much as any rider—male or female—that they had seen in years. Currently on leave from Sarah Lawrence College, she probably will never return. "I guess I should go back to school," she says, "but then my parents say I'm getting a pretty good education without the books."
During most of the international events this season she has been riding her own favorite horse, Tomboy. Three years ago Mary saw Tomboy for the first time, "fell in love with her and persuaded my parents to buy her for me even before they had seen her." The Mairs family has a 20-room home in Pasadena, Calif. which is filled with animals. A visitor there recently peeked into a bedroom and saw a number of dogs in the room. On the bed itself was a plank leading to the floor so the old, arthritic ones could get down without undue effort.
During the international events Mary has normally been the first rider to take the course for the U.S. team. Her job has been to go over the jumps without collecting faults. thus enabling the other three members of the team—Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot and Bill Robertson—to try and pick up time on the other nations. "I imagine," she says, "that I go out first because I am the least experienced. My job is to set things up so the boys can do their jobs better."
Before Mary Mairs goes out, however, USET Coach Bert de Nemethy slowly walks the course with her. The two will examine a jump, then pace off slowly the distance to the next jump. De Nemethy is constantly talking to her, questioning her, testing her reactions to different situations, and she constantly has the correct answers. Between now and the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964, De Nemethy will have to decide which he thinks is better, Kathy Kusner or Mary Mairs, and a lot of people will be interested in his answer.
The Canadian team in the 1964 Olympics probably will not have to survive any such suspense. Gail Ross will be there, and you can bet that her mother will be there too. Each time that Gail Ross goes to a fence her mother's shoulders move as if she were on the horse herself. She squirms in her seat and nervously puffs away on a cigarette, frequently lets out little squeals of fright. When her daughter has completed her course Mrs. Ross slumps in her seat in nervous exhaustion.
There have been reasons in the past why Mrs. Ross should be so concerned. On Saturday, October 7, 1961 Gail left the home of her companion for the evening, Lewis Scott, a 20-year-old polo player and student at Cornell University. The two had been duck shooting near Scott's home in Markham, a suburb of Toronto. After attending a dinner party at Scott's, the two began driving back toward the motel in which Gail was staying. At 2 a.m. the foreign sports car that Scott was driving went out of control on a lonely road, crashed into two trees, and Scott was killed instantly. It was three hours before some early morning duck hunters found Gail Ross lying beside the wreckage with a fractured skull and her jaw broken in three places.
One month later she appeared in the Royal in Toronto with her jaw wired and her diet consisting solely of soup. She rode her favorite horse. Pinnacle, and won the jumping title.
This year, aside from Pinnacle, which she has been riding mostly in the international competitions, Gail has ridden Thunderbird and Wings of Gold, both owned by her parents. She won 44 first-place awards, plus 28 reserve championships at various Canadian shows.
"Pinnacle," says Gail Ross, "is the horse that got me wherever I might be now. He's 12. He put me on the map. I got him when I was in grade eight. He's a marvelous jumper. He started me jumping. There are times when I ride him that I can almost hear what he is thinking. Sometimes he thinks, 'You're crazy, what are you trying to do to me? Ease off a little.' When we win, though, he's usually good enough to let me pose with him for a picture. Most of the time when the pictures come out he looks a heck of a lot better than I do."